A colleague sharing their experience of visiting Ironbridge, promoted as “The Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution” helped clarify some thoughts I have been brewing to help convey where the current Linked Data enthusiasms and initiatives may lead us.
The famous Iron Bridge, opened in 1781, spans the River Severn in Shropshire, England. To quote the Wikipedia “It was the first arch bridge in the world to be made out of cast iron, a material which was previously far too expensive to use for large structures. However, a new blast furnace nearby lowered the cost and so encouraged local engineers and architects to solve a long-standing problem of a crossing over the river.” The raw materials of iron ore and coal had been known for a long time, but it took the building of a nearby furnace, using the innovation of coke as a fuel, that enabled the local community to invest in the construction. The outcome was not only to stimulate the local commercial and administrative economy, but it also became an 18th century tourist attraction, which it continues to be today.
All very interesting, but what has this to do with Linked Data and it’s future?
The impact of Linked Data and the Web of Data it enables, on the way we interact and do business, will be greater than that of the World Wide Web that it builds upon.
When one makes statements like that one, you are often asked to justify yourself. As you may know, I like to use analogies to help clarify things and I believe the Industrial Revolution is a good one in the case of the future for Linked Data and associated techniques. I am also very aware that analogies tend to fall apart if you pick at the detail too much, so please bear with me on this one.
Like the Industrial Revolution, Linked Data is building on what went before. Before the Iron Bridge, there were other bridges, roads, and uses of iron. Before Linked data there was/is the Web – a globally distributed web of linked human-readable web pages, upon which are surfaced words and images for our information, entertainment and commercial desires. Data of course plays it’s part, often powering the websites that we all consume.
So what is so special about a Web of Data? – The data comes out from behind those websites to be linked with other data across the web, or maybe an intranet. Using the same techniques for linking pages together [the URL], data identifiers are given URIs. This means that a piece of data is given an identifier that is addressable across the web and therefore linkable with other data identified in a similar way.
So where does the Industrial Revolution analogy kick in? Well, once data are identifiable in a globally distributed context, they can be linked, mixed, mashed, and generally used to add value to each other. Your data can become the raw material for someone else’s process – your Wikipedia comment about an animal can become the description on a, data powered, BBC page about that species. As with coal, which after some refinement can become coke to be used to add value to the iron smelting process, any published data can be the raw material for value adding/combining processes. The processor, utilising their knowledge, skills, and experience to produce an alloy of data, the combination of which is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
In the same way that some freely available elements, such as the air pumped in to that blast furnace, were needed to get the process going; freely and openly available data, such as governments and the media are publishing, are priming the pumps of a data revolution.
Whenever there is value to be added in a process there is both community and commercial opportunity. Once people start using their skill and understanding of a facet of knowledge, to link data from one free, or commercial, source with more free or commercial data they can produce either a saleable result, and/or an enhancement to their own services. The output of one value-add process can then become one of the sources for yet another, and so on.
To finally stretch my analogy just a little further – looking back to those early days in the Severn Valley, it is possible to identify the building-blocks that led to commercial steel production, the age of steam, the automobile industry, and space flight. Most of which would have been unthinkable by those early pioneers. Pre-1994, could we have predicted the growth of Google, YouTube, Wikipeadia, and Twitter? In 2010 can we identify the building-blocks of a data revolution? – I think maybe we can.
So how will such a revolution, underpinned by Linked Data, change the way we interact and do business, more fundamentally than the Web has? – By creating whole new communities and industries to connect, supply, trade, enhance, distribute, interpret, and build services and applications upon a supporting web of globally available data elements and alloys.